Mechanical object, either functional (such as a clock) or decorative (such as a miniature singing bird), that is self-operating. Devices set in motion by water, falling weights, and steam were in use in the 1st century. Decorative mechanical objects were made for ecclesiastical use and table ornaments in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Spectacular fountains and waterworks can be seen in 16th-century Italian gardens; elaborate mechanical devices (such as the chess-playing Turk) were popular in the 18th–19th century. Except for some works by Carl Fabergé, the production of expensive automatons virtually ceased by the 20th century.
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Complex mechanical devices are known to have existed in ancient Greece, though the only surviving example is the Antikythera mechanism. Originally it was thought to have come from Rhodes, where there was apparently a tradition of mechanical engineering; The island was renowned for its automata; to quote Pindar's seventh Olympic Ode:
However, information gleaned from recent scans of the fragments indicate that it may have come from the colonies of Corinth in Sicily and implies a connection with Archimedes.
There are also examples from myth: Daedalus used quicksilver to install a voice in his statues. Hephaestus created automata for his workshop: Talos, an artificial man of bronze, and, according to Hesiod, the woman Pandora.
According to Jewish tradition, Solomon used his wisdom to design a throne with mechanical animals which hailed him as king when he ascended it; upon sitting down an eagle would place a crown upon his head, and a dove would bring him a Torah scroll.
In ancient China, a curious account on automata is found in the Lie Zi text, written in the 3rd century BC. Within it there is a description of a much earlier encounter between King Mu of Zhou (1023-957 BC) and a mechanical engineer known as Yan Shi, an 'artificer'. The latter proudly presented the king with a life-size, human-shaped figure of his mechanical 'handiwork' (Wade-Giles spelling):
The king stared at the figure in astonishment. It walked with rapid strides, moving its head up and down, so that anyone would have taken it for a live human being. The artificer touched its chin, and it began singing, perfectly in tune. He touched its hand, and it began posturing, keeping perfect time...As the performance was drawing to an end, the robot winked its eye and made advances to the ladies in attendance, whereupon the king became incensed and would have had Yen Shih [Yan Shi] executed on the spot had not the latter, in mortal fear, instantly taken the robot to pieces to let him see what it really was. And, indeed, it turned out to be only a construction of leather, wood, glue and lacquer, variously coloured white, black, red and blue. Examining it closely, the king found all the internal organs complete—liver, gall, heart, lungs, spleen, kidneys, stomach and intestines; and over these again, muscles, bones and limbs with their joints, skin, teeth and hair, all of them artificial...The king tried the effect of taking away the heart, and found that the mouth could no longer speak; he took away the liver and the eyes could no longer see; he took away the kidneys and the legs lost their power of locomotion. The king was delighted.
In the 8th century, the Muslim alchemist, Jabir ibn Hayyan (Geber), included recipes for constructing artificial snakes, scorpions, and humans which would be subject to their creator's control in his coded Book of Stones. In 827, Caliph al-Mamun had a silver and golden tree in his palace in Baghdad, which had the features of an automatic machine. There were metal birds that sang automatically on the swinging branches of this tree built by Muslim inventors and engineers at the time. The Abbasid Caliph al-Muktadir also had a golden tree in his palace in Baghdad in 915, with birds on it flapping their wings and singing. In the 9th century, the Banū Mūsā brothers invented an automatic flute player which appears to have been the first programmable machine, and which they described in their Book of Ingenious Devices.
Al-Jazari is credited for the first recorded designs of a programmable automaton in 1206, used for a set of humanoid automata. His automaton was a boat with four automatic musicians that floated on a lake to entertain guests at royal drinking parties. His mechanism had a programmable drum machine with pegs (cams) that bump into little levers that operate the percussion. The drummer could be made to play different rhythms and different drum patterns if the pegs were moved around. According to Charles B. Fowler, the automata were a "robot band" which performed "more than fifty facial and body actions during each musical selection.
Al-Jazari also invented a hand washing automaton first employing the flush mechanism now used in modern flush toilets. It features a female automaton standing by a basin filled with water. When the user pulls the lever, the water drains and the female automaton refills the basin. His "peacock fountain" was another more sophisticated hand washing device featuring humanoid automata as servants which offer soap and towels. Mark E. Rosheim describes it as follows: "Pulling a plug on the peacock's tail releases water out of the beak; as the dirty water from the basin fills the hollow base a float rises and actuates a linkage which makes a servant figure appear from behind a door under the peacock and offer soap. When more water is used, a second float at a higher level trips and causes the appearance of a second servant figure — with a towel!" Al-Jazari thus appears to have been the first inventor to display an interest in creating human-like machines for practical purposes such as manipulating the environment for human comfort.
Villard de Honnecourt, in his 1230s sketchbook, show plans for animal automata and an angel that perpetually turns to face the sun.
The Chinese author Xiao Xun wrote that when the Ming Dynasty founder Hongwu (r. 1368–1398) was destroying the palaces of Khanbaliq belonging to the previous Yuan Dynasty, there were—amongst many other mechanical devices—automatons found that were in the shape of tigers.
Leonardo da Vinci sketched a more complex automaton around the year 1495. The design of Leonardo's robot was not rediscovered until the 1950s. The robot, which appears in Leonardo's sketches, could, if built successfully, move its arms, twist its head, and sit up. The device was built and it actually functioned.
The Renaissance witnessed a considerable revival of interest in automata. Hero's treatises were edited and translated into Latin and Italian. Numerous clockwork automata were manufactured in the sixteenth century, principally by the goldsmiths of the Free Imperial Cities of central Europe. These wondrous devices found a home in the cabinets of curiosities or Wunderkammern of the princely courts of Europe. Hydraulic and pneumatic automata, similar to those described by Hero, were created for garden grottoes.
A new attitude towards automata is to be found in Descartes when he suggested that the bodies of animals are nothing more than complex machines - the bones, muscles and organs could be replaced with cogs, pistons and cams. Thus mechanism became the standard to which Nature and the organism was compared. Seventeenth-century France was the birthplace of those ingenious mechanical toys that were to become prototypes for the engines of the industrial revolution. Thus, in 1649, when Louis XIV was still a child, an artisan named Camus designed for him a miniature coach, and horses complete with footmen, page and a lady within the coach; all these figures exhibited a perfect movement. According to P. Labat, General de Gennes constructed, in 1688, in addition to machines for gunnery and navigation, a peacock that walked and ate. The Jesuit Athanasius Kircher produced many automatons to create jesuit shows, including a statue which spoke and listened via a speaking tube.
The world's first successfully-built biomechanical automaton is considered to be The Flute Player, invented by the French engineer Jacques de Vaucanson in 1737. He also constructed a mechanical duck that gave the false illusion of eating and defecating, seeming to endorse Cartesian ideas that animals are no more than machines of flesh.
In 1769, a chess-playing machine called the Turk, created by Wolfgang von Kempelen, made the rounds of the courts of Europe purporting to be an automaton. The Turk was operated from inside by a hidden human director, and was not a true automaton.
Other 18th century automaton makers include the prolific Frenchman Pierre Jaquet-Droz (see Jaquet-Droz automata) and his contemporary Henri Maillardet. Maillardet, a Swiss mechanician, created an automaton capable of drawing four pictures and writing three poems. Maillardet's Automaton is now part of the collections at the Franklin Institute Science Museum in Philadelphia. Belgian-born John Joseph Merlin created the mechanism of the Silver Swan automaton, now at Bowes Museum.
According to philosopher Michel Foucault, Frederick the Great, king of Prussia from 1740 to 1786, was "obsessed" with automata . According to Manuel de Landa, "he put together his armies as a well-oiled clockwork mechanism whose components were robot-like warriors."
The famous magician Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin (1805 - 1871) was known for creating automata for his stage shows.
The period 1860 to 1910 is known as "The Golden Age of Automata". During this period many small family based companies of Automata makers thrived in Paris. From their workshops they exported thousands of clockwork automata and mechanical singing birds around the world. It is these French automata that are collected today, although now rare and expensive they attract collectors worldwide. The main French makers were Vichy, Roullet & Decamps, Lambert, Phalibois, Renou and Bontems.
An evolution of the mechanized toys developed during the 18th and 19th centuries is represented by automata made with paper. Despite the relative simplicity of the material, paper automata intrinsically are objects with a high degree of technology, where the principles of mechanics meet the artistic creativity.
The Smithsonian Institution has in its collection a clockwork monk, about 15 inches high, possibly dating as early as 1560. The monk is driven by a key-wound spring and walks the path of a square, striking his chest with his right arm, while raising and lowering a small wooden cross and rosary in his left hand, turning and nodding his head, rolling his eyes, and mouthing silent obsequies. From time to time, he brings the cross to his lips and kisses it. It is believed that the monk was manufactured by Juanelo Turriano, mechanician to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.